You’ve been stuck in an unhappy marriage for longer than you care to admit.
Or maybe the two of you have just drifted apart.
Whatever the cause, things aren’t good. And they haven’t been good for a long, long time.
Some days it’s not so bad. You go about your day doing the things you do. You don’t even feel the emptiness until evening comes. But that’s when it hits you.
That’s when you wonder what happened.
You never imagined that your life would be like this … but here you are.
You know that you’re not happy. But you can’t be sure that you’d be any happier if you got a divorce.
Would you be alone for the rest of your life? Would you be financially strapped and have to struggle for years? Should you hang in there and keep trying to make things work? Or is it time to give up the ghost and admit that your marriage is over?
You’ve had this conversation in your head a hundred times before. Some days you’re completely convinced you want a divorce. You’re done!
But then the next day you wake up and things don’t seem to be quite that bad. You think about how ugly getting a divorce would be. You think about the expense, and how hard getting a divorce will be on your kids.
So you do nothing.
The truth is: you’re stuck.
What Keeps Someone Stuck in an Unhappy Marriage
Just as people marry for many reasons, they stay stuck in unhappy marriages for many reasons. Here are some of the main reasons that people stay in marriages that aren't working for way longer than they want.
Fear is probably the biggest reason people stay stuck in unhappy marriages.
If you're married and you're not happy, and you want to BE happy in your marriage, you have to do one of two things. Either you have to work on your marriage so that you make it better, or you have to leave it and get a divorce. Both of those things involve change. And human beings are hard-wired to resist change.
When you change something, you lose control of it. And no one likes the feeling of being out-of-control!
Change is also loaded with uncertainty. And adding more uncertainty to your world right now may be the last thing you're up for!
So, rather than deal with the change and the uncertainty that comes with BOTH working on your marriage (what if it doesn't work?) and getting a divorce (what happens to me then?) you stay in the uncomfortable certainty of being stuck in an unhappy marriage.
Staying Married for the Money
As politically incorrect as it may be to admit it, some people stay married because they can’t afford to get divorced. Getting divorced is expensive. Supporting two households is expensive. Maintaining separate health insurance policies is expensive.
If you and your spouse are barely making ends meet now, then divorcing could force you both into a financial black hole.
Even if you and your spouse are financially stable together, getting divorced can still dramatically change your lifestyle. That’s especially true if either you or your spouse is unemployed and you don’t have a lot of marital assets to split.
The bottom line is that money drives a lot of people to stay married when they might really prefer to be divorced.
Human beings hate to lose.
According to research the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of winning. Since most people view getting divorced as “losing” their marriage, it’s not surprising that it’s so hard for them to let go of it, even when it’s not working!
Of course, some people would say that’s a good thing. Marriages are supposed to be life-long commitments. They shouldn’t be easily dissolved.
The challenge is that just because you don’t want to let go of something, that doesn’t mean that it’s good. It also doesn’t mean that you (or your spouse!) is willing to work to make it better.
Unfortunately, hanging on to a marriage that isn’t working and isn’t likely to ever work simply because you don’t want to “fail” can keep you stuck in misery for a very long time.
Inertia is the principle that an object at rest will tend to stay rest until some outside force moves it. In other words, even if you’re stuck in an unhappy marriage, breaking that pattern and either working to improve your marriage or leave it is hard.
Working on your marriage takes effort. It also takes courage. That’s because it forces you to face the problems in your relationship.
It also makes you face the possibility that, even if you work on your problems, your marriage might not get better. And if your marriage still sucks after you’ve done everything you could do to fix it, it’s going to be much harder to convince yourself that everything is okay.
On the other hand, getting divorced takes courage too. After you’ve been married for years – or decades – the thought of being suddenly single again can be terrifying!
The bottom line is that doing anything takes time, energy and courage. Staying stuck is so much easier.
Many people stay stuck in unhappy marriages because of beliefs that they hold about what marriage is “supposed” to be and what they “should” do.
Here are some of the most common beliefs that will keep you stuck in an unhappy marriage:
1. Marriage is forever. There are no exceptions.
If you believe that marriage is ALWAYS a lifetime commitment no matter what– then you will struggle to leave it under any circumstances. That’s true even if your spouse is an alcoholic, a gambler, a drug addict, or an abuser.
If marriage is forever, and you married the wrong person, you’ve just got to suck it up and kiss any hope of personal happiness goodbye. Thinking that way is guaranteed to keep you miserable and stuck.
2. Staying married is best for the kids.
No one would argue that divorce is good for children. Research has shown that children suffer when their parents split – especially in the first two years after divorce. Research has also shown that children suffer when their parents fight – even when their parents are married. What’s more, studies have shown that the long-term impact divorce has on most children is generally minimal.
The bottom line seems to be that parental conflict is what hurts kids the most. So whether you stay married or get divorced, if you and your spouse are fighting in front of your kids, you’re hurting them. Believing otherwise won’t help your kids, and it will keep you stuck.
3. I made a vow years ago and I can’t go back on my word.
Most people take their marriages vows very seriously. They promised to stay together “until death did they part,” and they meant it.
But things change. People change. The person you married when you were 20 may be a very different person than the one you’re still married to when you’re in your 40’s or 50’s. Yet, if you believe that you have to honor a commitment you made even if it later turns out to be a mistake, or even if life has driven you and your spouse in different directions, you will struggle longer with the idea of getting divorced.
4. Divorce is against my religion.
When your religious beliefs conflict with your beliefs about marriage, divorce, family and your own right to personal happiness, you will struggle. How much you struggle, and for how long, depends on how challenging your situation is, and how deeply ingrained in you those religious beliefs are.
It’s not my place to tell you how to resolve that conflict. All I can tell you is that if that’s the conflict you’re facing, it will keep you stuck until you resolve for yourself which of your conflicting beliefs you will follow.
5. If I just work at this harder, everything will be okay.
Working harder can solve a lot of problems. But sometimes no matter how hard you work on your marriage, you’re not going to be able to change it.
Working harder on your marriage won’t resolve a fundamental values conflict between you and your spouse. It won’t necessarily reconcile the fact that you view the world very differently, or that you each want to pursue very different lifestyles. So, while it’s important to work hard on your marriage, it’s equally important to recognize when working harder just won’t be enough.
6. If I get divorced, what will people think?
Admitting this to yourself is hard. Yet, it’s only human to worry about what other people think about us. The fear of having your family, close friends or religious community shun you if you get divorced is very real for some people. That fear can keep you stuck in an unhappy marriage for a long time.
At some point, resolving this kind of conflict boils down to deciding what matters most to you. You have to decide whether it’s more important to fit into a particular community and stay in a miserable marriage or get divorced and try to find happiness in a different relationship and/or in a different community. It’s not an easy choice.
7. I can’t survive on my own.
If you believe that you need your spouse in order to survive – financially or emotionally – you will struggle to decide whether to get a divorce. Our survival instinct is a core part of our humanity. It’s not something most people can just disregard because they’re not feeling happy in their marriage.
At the same time, you might want to try to separate fact from fiction. If the reality of your current situation is that you ARE financially, emotionally, or psychologically dependent on your spouse, you might want to ask yourself whether you want to stay that way forever. You CAN change. You just have to decide whether you want to do whatever it is you need to do to make that change.
8. If we get divorced, I won’t be able to see my kids every day anymore.
For most people, this isn’t a belief. It’s a fact. If you get divorced you probably WON’T see your kids every day. You and your then ex-spouse will have to share time with your kids. But if the thought of being away from your kids is keeping you from leaving a hopelessly unhappy marriage, you might want to ask yourself a simple question. What am I really afraid of if I don’t see my kids 24/7/365?
Are you really worried about not seeing your kids every minute of every day? Or are you afraid that if you get divorced you won’t see your kids enough, or that your relationship will suffer? If those are your concerns, and you and your spouse can be reasonable in your divorce, you can create a parenting agreement that addresses them, even if you’re not with your kids constantly.
9. I can make this work all by myself!
When you want your marriage to work, it’s easy to get hooked on the idea that you can do that all by yourself. You think that if you just work harder (See #5) or become more flexible, or give your marriage more time, you can make everything work out.
Unfortunately, that’s not true. Marriage is a union of two people. If one person doesn’t care about the relationship, or doesn’t want to be in it, then no matter what the other person does, the marriage isn’t likely to ever be good.
How to Get Unstuck
Getting yourself past whatever is keeping you stuck requires you to first diagnose what your issue is. That's because the response you take to get you past whatever is holding you back depends on the nature of what's holding you back.
Here's how to deal with the issues we discussed above when they're keeping you stuck in an unhappy marriage.
How to Deal with Fear
Managing your fear of an uncertain future is no easy task. Neither is managing your fear of divorce. Yet, if fear is truly what's stopping you, facing your fear is the only way to get yourself unstuck.
Of course, facing your fear isn't easy. That's why you don't just do it. It's the very reason you're stuck in the first place.
Yet, getting yourself unstuck doesn't have to take superhuman courage. It just requires you to have a REASON - a really important reason - to take action. Here's what I mean.
If your house was burning down, and you had insurance, chances are you wouldn't run into the burning building just to try to save your clothes, or your computer, or any of your other "stuff." It wouldn't be worth it.
Yet, if your child was trapped in your house, then suddenly your perspective would change. You'd still be afraid of getting trapped in the burning building, but you'd probably run in anyway to try to save your child.
Your desire to save your kid would outweigh your fear of going into a burning building.
The same thing applies to your marriage.
If you have a strong reason to either work on saving your marriage or leaving it, you will ... even if you're afraid of what will happen if you take action. But, without that strong reason to DO something, it's much easier for your fear to get the best of you. Then you do nothing. And you stay stuck.
When Money is the Problem
If you’re stuck in an unhappy marriage for financial reasons, then you need to take a good long look at your finances. Once you do, you need to figure out what really matters to you. To do that, you need to be brutally honest with yourself.
If being married gives you a lifestyle you could never afford on your own, and you don’t want to give that lifestyle up, then maybe you’re going to need to stay married. While doing that may seem unthinkable by today’s standards, the truth is that people have been doing exactly that for millennia.
On the other hand, if the issue is that you and your spouse simply can’t afford to divorce, then your challenge may be to find a way to either earn more or spend less.
Maybe you’ll have to go back to work. Maybe you’ll have to get a second job. Or maybe you’ll have to downsize or sell your house.
The bottom line is that, for you, the key to getting unstuck is really a math problem. If you can find a viable way to balance your budget if you divorce then you’ll be free to make a decision about your marriage based on the merits of your marriage rather than on finances.
When You're Afraid to Lose What You've Got
If the reason you can’t decide whether to stay married or get a divorce is because you’re so afraid of what you’ll lose, then you need to get to the bottom of why that matters so much to you.
What does getting a divorce mean to you? When you think of your marriage, what are you focused on? What are you afraid of when you consider divorce?
Getting to the bottom of these and other issues will help you get past the obstacles that are standing in the way of getting you unstuck from your unhappy marriage.
When Inertia Has You Paralyzed
There’s only one way to fight inertia. That’s to MOVE!
When you’re all caught up in your head about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do, taking action can be the catalyst you need for change.
Maybe you can convince your spouse to go to marriage counseling. Maybe you can start looking into what it would mean to get a divorce. Or, maybe you start working with a therapist yourself so that you can start dealing with your own issues. (Everyone has them!)
Whatever you choose to do, the key is to DO SOMETHING. That will break your inertia and go a long way toward getting you unstuck.
When Your Beliefs Are Keeping You Tied in Knots
When your core values and beliefs are keeping you stuck in a miserable marriage, it’s time to start examining those beliefs.
While all of us tend to assume that are beliefs are “The Truth,” the reality is that they are just “beliefs.” They are a way of looking at the world. They are things that we assume are true. But if you take a step back and can examine your beliefs objectively, you may find that they aren’t as set in stone as you thought.
The truth is that none of us was born with the “beliefs” we now hold so dear. Someone (usually our parents, teachers, and family members) told us what to believe. They said, “this is what is right.” When they did, we believed them without question.
We were children. Of course we believed what we were told.
The problem is that, when we become adults, most of us don’t realize that we have a choice about our beliefs. We can examine them, decide whether they still serve us, and change them if we want.
As revolutionary as it may sound, now may be the time to open your mind. If your old beliefs are keeping you stuck in an unhappy marriage, it may be time to question your beliefs.
How do you do that? Start by asking yourself, “Is this belief true? Is it always, absolutely true in every circumstance? Or, can it be true in some situations, and not true in others?”
Another question you may want to ask yourself is, “Is this belief helping me, or is it hurting me?” If it is hurting you, why are you hanging on to it? Unless you enjoy suffering, it may be time to re-examine your old beliefs.
Deciding if You Want a Divorce
Deciding whether you truly want a divorce or not is a huge decision. Digging into what’s keeping you stuck in an unhappy marriage is an important first step in making that decision.
When you do that digging, do your best to have an open mind and a kind heart.
The more you’re willing to consider other perspectives, beliefs and possibilities, the easier it will be for you to move past whatever is holding you back and keeping you stuck.
But doing that isn’t easy. You didn’t get to where you are now in a day, a week, or probably even in a year. Changing will take time. It’s a journey. The more grace you can give yourself as you go on that journey, the better your journey will be.
This post was originally published in April, 2016 and updated on February 3, 2022.